Losing Reality: New Media and our Relation to the World
G.K. Chesterton did not offer his social criticism in essay form only. His novels are full of commentary, such that at their worst, they read like his essays. In his fanciful novel Manalive, Chesterton depicts a society that is trapped in a moribund melancholy, only to be rescued by the (autobiographical?) hero Innocent Smith. The novel is a frolicking portrayal of the fundamental goodness of reality over and against the dreary cynicism of German pessimism (which was en vogue at the time), scientism, and other social evils.
Chesterton puts the cause of the society’s problem in the mouth of Arthur Inglewood, a young man who is an amateur photographer:
“And yet I fancy all hobbies, like my camera and bicycle, are drugs too…Drugging myself with speed, and sunshine, and fatigue, and fresh air. Pedaling the machine so fast that I turn into a machine myself. That’s the matter with all of us. We’re too busy to wake up.”*
It is not hard to hear Chesterton’s thought that people are “mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals” as a commentary on Inglewood’s language about being “too busy to wake up.” But it is Inglewood’s interlocutor, Diana Duke, who asks the pertinent question: “What is there to wake up to?”
Not surprisingly, Innocent Smith provides the answer. Smith is a large but nimble man who announces his arrival by jumping over the wall of a garden and finds an extraordinary amount of joy in facts as simple as the one that he has two legs. After all, had God decided otherwise, he could have had four. Writes Chesterton:
[Smith] talked dominantly and rushed the social situation; but he was not asserting himself, like a superman in a modern play. He was simply forgetting himself, like a little boy at a party. He had somehow made a giant stride from babyhood to manhood, and missed that crisis in youth when most of us grow old.**
What do we wake up to? Smith has woken up and discovered the world, which is so fascinating, so complex, and so good that it is a source of perpetual wonder, joy, and enchantment. It is the external world—reality, or that which is outside of our minds—that we have been made for, and only in the apprehension of which can we find true and abiding joy. Smith’s “forgetting himself” isn’t a work of effort—it is a natural result of being engrossed by other things and people. Inglewood’s point that we are “too busy to wake up” is a wise caution to us all, especially to those who wish to consume and create new media.
*G.K. Chesterton. Manalive. (Dover Publications: Mineola, NY, 2005). 28.
Taken from The New Media Frontier edited by John Mark Reynolds and Roger Overton, ©2008. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,www.crossway.org. Download for personal use only.